Editor’s note: The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team. As part of this project, editorial writer Alex Fryer has been examining issues related to behavioral health and substance use disorders.
So far this year, three people have died by suicide while in King County Jail custody. That matches the entire year in 2020, which witnessed the highest number of suicides in the past four years.
This is an alarming trend, all the more so because King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson criticized the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) for lacking adequate mental health services in a report issued more than 13 months ago.
At the time of the auditor’s report, DAJD agreed to fix problems and promised to ask the Metropolitan King County Council for the necessary funds. But that didn’t happen.
Public officials have a duty to protect the most vulnerable residents, and to ensure proper safety to those in their care. Jail suicides deserve the attention of King County Executive Dow Constantine and county council members, all of whom must do more to prevent mental health crises from spiraling to self-harm.
Between 2017 and 2019, the need for psychiatric housing in the jail increased by 27%, the auditor determined. However, the number of beds in the psychiatric housing unit stayed the same.
Of the four suicides between 2017 and 2020, none took place in units with suicide-resistant cells.
More people brought to the jail were struggling with homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness, which increased the need for mental-health services in the facility, the auditor said.
In March, King County agreed to pay $750,000 to the family of a man who killed himself in the downtown jail in 2017. The lawsuit alleged jail officials knew or should have known the man was in crisis but failed to protect.
Among its recommendations, the auditor said DAJD and Jail Health Services, which provides medical care for incarcerated people, should develop and implement training requirements for corrections officers on the mental and behavioral health of people in custody.
The auditor also recommended that DAJD develop and implement a plan to ensure that people with psychiatric needs and housed in overflow units receive the same care as those housed in designated psychiatric housing. The number of suicide resistant cells should be increased, particularly for restrictive housing and psychiatric overflow units.
In their response to the report, jail officials — who work for Constantine — agreed with the auditor’s recommendations, and said they were working on budget requests to send to the county council to make them happen.
Actions haven’t followed words.
In fact, dollars have been reduced for jail operations. Just weeks after the auditor’s report last year, Constantine, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan and council members from both governments announced $16 million would be “repurposed” from detention and directed to community health and housing programs in the next two years.
No money was set aside for jail mental health improvements in the executive’s proposed $617 million mid-biennial proposed supplemental budget, which was submitted five months after the auditor raised red flags.
Two other smaller supplemental budgets, which included COVID-19-related funding and other requests, were delivered from the Executive’s Office to the council after the auditor’s report. Neither sought mental health improvements for the jail.
Earlier this month, a DAJD spokesperson said the department anticipates “a number of audit-related requests will be made but we are still in the very early stages of the biennial budget process.” The Executive transmits the budget to the county council in September.
On Friday, DAJD contacted the editorial board to say work has begun to retrofit units to improve safety. More funding may be requested.
In the past year, elected officials responded quickly to a number of pressing concerns but apparently believed jail mental health could wait. That is a breach of responsibility.
For all aspects of the criminal legal system to function properly, the safety and well-being of those in detention must be a top priority.